Friday, 16 September 2011

Great American Novels

Yesterday in my reading group we were talking about Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain. A lively group of 15 people all seemed to have enjoyed the characters, the wit and the important and perennial themes it tackles. Linda, a fairly new member of the group who has lived half her life in the US, felt it highlighted the fundamental pragmatism of American people. Lots of people commented on the river as metaphor for constant movement and freedom.

Of course we also talked about the racism it highlights and attitudes between white and black people which remain as a subject matter for modern writing, as well as the now shocking un-pc language it is written in. We had read The Help by Kathryn Stockett earlier in the year and there was much to be said about how black people can still be treated by land-owning whites. Clare, as she often does, compared it with her favorite William Faulkner and found it wanting.

What puzzled me as the discussion went on was why I hadn't read it earlier. I had ostensibly studied American literature at University (along with English) but had managed to avoid both Uncle Tom's Cabin and Huckleberry Finn, both widely regarded as seminal works, not only of anti-slavery literature, but also of American Literature in its entirety. Twain's house in Hartford, Connecticut pictured here, stands directly next door to that of Harriet Beecher Stowe and now I understand what an influence she must have had on his thinking and writing. I haven't thought about my university days for many years but this really made me wonder if we weren't pointed at these books because of some politically correct anxiety about the content or language. If that was the case, it was a pity and an omission.

But perhaps it was just me. Perhaps we were given options which I have now forgotten. All I remember is that for a very long time I immersed myself in Moby Dick and for decades have enthused about that as greatest ever American novel. In recent years its status in my eyes was challenged by Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, but I still think I would take MD to my desert island. But now that certainty has been shaken. Once again a reading group discussion has caused me to question what I thought I knew, admire other people's perception and judgement, bemoan my own ignorance. I know it has all been said before in other places, but when they work well, reading groups really can be an amazing source of inspiration and learning. And if you think Huckleberry Finn is a children's book you are in for a surprise.

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